Sunday, September 27, 2009


Although the French word potpourri has come to mean a collection or assortment, the literal translation is “rotten pot,” a reference to the decayed and decaying material within that makes a sweet smell. This installment of Crotchets is a collection of rotten examples of decaying education, if not civilization, and all the perfumes of Araby will not sweeten the smell.

Surely there isn’t a person in the United States who hasn’t heard of France or seen a map of it. (Whether they could find it on a map without prompts is a different matter for concern.) I love maps and have spent many hours poring over them. Most college students cover their dorm walls with posters of pop stars; I had a map of the world on mine. Maybe that’s why I reacted with a frisson of horror when, flipping through a shoe catalog, I came upon a page of items identified as black, brown, and “bordo.” The last term appeared beside shoes and a handbag of wine red, and clearly this monstrosity was a phonetic misspelling of bordeaux. The city of Bordeaux in France has lent its name, which translates as waters’ edge, to some of the finest wines ever produced as well as the garnet red color associated with wine. This information has escaped the notice or memory of at least one person at Naturalizer, which manufactured the items so identified. I say at least one person, but with reference to the very first article in this series (Who’s To Blame), anywhere from two to ten people other than the Frankenstein who created this monster had to look at it and okay it. Frankly, I am appalled. I wonder whether the persons who put the catalog together had to force themselves to reproduce this misshapen thing or whether, like the perpetrator, they didn’t notice or care.

Now let’s get really down and dirty and talk about compost. Far from elegant, the black gold produced from organic waste by natural agents of decay has become quite chic, a way to feed the earth instead of landfills. Composting is a slow process; even with optimal composition and conditions and regular turning, it will take three to six months to transform dead leaves and manure and food scraps into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Creative minds have been at work devising ways to accelerate the process. The word accelerate is built from the Latin root celer, meaning swift, plus the prefix ad, meaning for or toward; in the compound, ad becomes ac for easier pronunciation. The person who invented and named Bio-Excelerator as a composting aid either didn’t know how to spell accelerator (and couldn’t be bothered to look it up) or was creatively making a pun on excel. Call me cynical, but I’m betting it’s error, not wordplay.

The next item is from TV Guide, which generally does a good job of editing its material, with few misspellings or grammatical errors. However, they recently committed a major homophonic boo-boo, a category of error that has become increasingly frequent even as the incidence of misspellings has decreased. I attribute this trend in large part to computer spelling-check programs, which offer alternatives but not definitions. A short article on the reality show Celebrity Apprentice, which admitted that many of the “celebrities” were unknown to the average viewer and identified each briefly, was accompanied by several photographs of the better known and more beautiful. One of the would-be apprentices’ tasks was to sell cupcakes on the streets of New York to raise money for charity, and there is a photo of three lovely young women with the caption “Roderick, Jordan and Kardashian hock their wares.” Oh, dear. Hock has several meanings, the most familiar of which have to do with pawnshops and debt. The word the writer was thinking of is hawk, defined in my dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate) as “to offer for sale by calling out in the street,” which is exactly what these young women were doing. Confusion between homophones is a difficult problem to fix. There are lots of homophones, whether in pairs (not pears or pares) or in multiples (including the infamous two, too, and to), and it’s very easy to think/speak the right sound and write down the wrong word. What’s the answer? Look up every word that has a homophone? The thought that any given word might have a soundalike may not occur in the heat of composition or under the pressure of a deadline. Let me diffidently suggest that those without the talent for spelling (you know who you are) should look up any word that is not part of their ordinary daily vocabulary when they are writing something intended for publication. Now let me put on my suit of armor to survive the projectiles that will be thrown my way for daring to suggest something so time-consuming and tedious. What I actually want to suggest is that they look up every word, because so many common words have soundalikes (you're and your and it's and its among them, all surely part of anyone's daily vocabulary), but even I know that's impractical.

Perhaps I should add broadcast to publication in making this diffident (foolhardy?) suggestion. Television may be a vast wasteland, but one would like to assume the news shows cleave to a higher standard. Unfortunately, I am losing count of the errors stupid (note that stupid is the adjectival form of stupor and does not refer to intelligence) and ludicrous that have appeared on screen to accompany news stories. A story discussing the proper use of parking lights versus headlights on cars told viewers that parking lights, as the term suggests, should be used only when the vehicle is stationary. The caption on my screen, however, had the word stationery. Perhaps I should use my personalized stationery to write a letter of protest. Then there was the piece on a celebrity who was well known as, according to the caption, a “ladies man.” This is just ignorant. The caption writer had two choices, lady’s or ladies’, but completely failed to recognize the need for a possessive. One station now has a with-it dude on the Thursday night 11 p.m. news to let viewers in on weekend happenings. One of these was a sneak peek opportunity for a movie; the onscreen graphic had it as “sneak peak,” surely a peak experience in anyone’s leisure life. Here’s another outrageous suggestion: Hire people who know how to use the language to write onscreen captions or an editor to vet them before broadcast. Or both.

Finally, we have a puzzling piece of nonsense from the funny pages. The comic strip Parallel Universe made a play on the name Chex Mix, a crunchy snack food based on Chex brand cereal. The caption reads “Czech’s Mix…a delicious snack with just a hint of Slovakia.” I will forgo a rant on the misuse of the ellipsis, because there is a much bigger problem to worry about. In the cartoon illustrating this punny caption, the bag the man is holding bears the words “Chech’s Mix.” Chech it out!! The cartoonist created a neologism that destroys the pun! (The second definition of neologism in my dictionary is “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic.” I love reading the dictionary!) Why does the error appear in the cartoon but not in the caption? This strip is attributed to two people, Patellis and Whelan. Does one write and the other draw? If the writer knew there was an error, why didn’t he get the artist to fix it in the illustration?

Stuff like this puts me in a really rotten mood, and that’s enough stink for one potpourri.

This is article 8 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

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